Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 13: Innocence and Experience) Review
It's time to start ramping up the action before the final and climactic fight. This volume (which comprises episodes 53-57 of Rurouni Kenshin) ties up the action at the Aoiya and finally brings Kenshin face-to-face with Shishio – the big bad of this story arc. It's actually quite a strange disc after the previous volume; most of these five episodes is spent on Kenshin duelling Soujiro and the audience finally learning more of Soujiro's past. Again, it's this ability to mix fast and furious action with slower, more involved battles that makes Rurouni Kenshin such a treat to watch.
Of course it helps that Soujiro is an interesting character too. After all, Kenshin has had real trouble defeating him in the past and we suddenly discover that Soujiro has yet another hidden power which will be brought out in this final duel. After all the excitement of watching Kaoru, Misao and Yahiko fight we also get to see the welcome return of the sardonic Seijuro in this disc. He finally gets to the Aoiya to help defend it as he promised his student he would (though he blames Kenshin for giving bad directions, naturally – we know he's more interested in making dramatic last-minute entrances than in actually helping out!). As with Saito and Aoshi, the general rule is that it's always a blast when Seijuro is around and this is no exception. He even makes his ridiculous white cloak seem kind of cool.
So yes, there's a lot of Soujiro and a fair amount of Seijuro (argh, similar names will be my downfall!) – but let's not overlook the final episode on this disc: Shishio and Kenshin start their duel. The final clash has been a long time in coming and this beginning certainly promises good things for the next and final volume of the Kyoto arc of Rurouni Kenshin. Having a cliffhanger doesn't hurt either!
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
53: 'The Giant Versus Superman'
Fuji and Saizuchi had just arrived at the Aoiya when the last disc concluded, and the latter even pauses for a little speech about how little chance the Oniwaban have against the 'Destruction Army' as the duo are apparently known. Just when things are looking truly hopeless, Seijuro (Kenshin's master) shows up to save the day.
Seijuro is obviously a master swordsman, but before launching into a proper fight he speaks to Fuji like an honourable opponent. He respects Fuji's skill and tells the giant to stop taking orders from a wizened old dwarf and to start to think and act for himself. This leads Fuji to remove the armour that makes him look more monster than man. Armour removed, the real fight can begin. Fuji attacks with a two-handed style, but Seijuro is, of course, up to the challenge and defeats the 'monster'; the female Oniwaban members are stricken with love for Seijuro, and even Yahiko admits he's kind of cool. The Aoiya is saved – hurrah!
Back in Shishio's secret compound, Kenshin believes he's heard Kaoru's voice and inwardly knows the Aoiya is safe. Kenshin, Sanosuke and Yumi reach The Room Without Space – the place where Kenshin will meet up with Soujiro in combat. Meanwhile Houji learns his plan for the Aoiya has failed and that the Juppon Gatana there were either captured or ran away. Soujiro isn't at all concerned about his duel with Kenshin and heads off for it.
54: 'Hiten Versus Shukuchi'
This episode is obviously mostly taken up with the fight between Kenshin and Soujiro. Soujiro is as smiley and unemotional as ever, and we soon learn of his 'hidden' talent (or at least a talent that we haven't seen until now): he has more than godlike speed, known as Shukuchi. Kenshin's styles often rely on speed, so it's obviously going to be a hard, fast fight...
Again there is a running commentary on martial arts techniques from Sanosuke; there's also the now-standard banter between combatants. Soujiro is working up to the full speed of the Shukuchi, using lesser forms because he still doesn't believe he needs to go full out in order to defeat Kenshin. It's a fairly action-packed fight, and Kenshin certainly does some bleeding through it – so much so, in fact, that Sanosuke starts to really worry about his friend.
When he doesn't quite manage to finish off Kenshin as he thought he would, Soujiro starts to worry, seeming really disconcerted and unsure of what to do. This leads to further discussion of Kenshin's compassion. After an attack goes slightly wrong, Soujiro calls a time-out to fix the strap on one of his shoes and Kenshin uses the time to get Sano to dress his many wounds.
While Yumi rebukes Soujiro for taking so long to finish off Kenshin, we get a glimpse of Soujiro's past and learn that Shishio took him in a long time ago and taught him that only the strong survive... a heavy hint that the next episode will deal with Soujiro's backstory.
55: 'The Tragedy of a Stormy Night'
This episode once again hinges on Kenshin's duel and Soujiro's strange behaviour; as expected, the main focus is Soujiro's past. Physically and verbally abused by his family, Soujiro quickly learned to mask his tears and smile throughout his various hardships. However, everything changed for the young boy when Shishio, on the run from the law, chose Soujiro's home to hide out in. He ends up teaching the boy the philosophy of 'survival of the strongest' and his personal mantra ('If you're strong you live; if you're weak, you die.'). This flips a switch in Soujiro's psyche, eventually turning him into the ruthless killer we see now.
Returning to the present duel, Soujiro ramps up his speed towards the full Shukuchi and we get some satisfying action in between all the commentary and ethical debate. It's the clash of philosophies between Soujiro and Kenshin which leads to the former's inner conflict. When times were bad it was Shishio, not Kenshin, who was around to protect Soujiro and cement his loyalty. Nevertheless, this episode ends in mid-fight, so we have to wait for the resolution.
56: 'A Duel With an Extreme Moment'
The gradual return of Soujiro's emotions is allowing Kenshin to see through his godlike speed. Himura speaks to his opponent about regret and allowing one's true self to shine through, despite past grievances. This leads to a bit of a mental breakdown and anger suddenly wells up in Soujiro, who turns and attacks again. He readies a major assault, while Kenshin prepares his ultimate attack to respond with.
They attack simultaneously and Kenshin's attack wins out. Soujiro realises that he's been wrong all along and that Kenshin's philosophy is the correct one after all. Kenshin reminds Soujiro that he still has time to get his life back on track by how he chooses to live it from that moment onwards. Kenshin and Sanosuke move onwards to meet with Shishio while Soujiro tells Yumi the truth behind Kenshin's ultimate attack so she can inform Shishio... a parting gift to his former master.
Meanwhile Aoshi has finally managed to get to his feet and is met by Saito, just arrived at Houji's room. After a few mysterious words regarding a private agenda, he hands Aoshi a blueprint of the Shishio compound and then heads off to do his own thing. Unsurprisingly, when Kenshin and Sano arrive at Shishio's room, Yumi is already there – having taken a shortcut – and she leads the pair to Shishio's arena (the 'Inferno Room', naturally). The final duel is primed to commence.
57: 'Two Men at the End of an Era'
So this is what it's all been leading up to – the final duel between Kenshin and Shishio and there's hardly a doubt it's going to be a massive battle! While Yumi leads Kenshin and Sanosuke closer to their foe, Houji and Shishio talk about the need to remove Kenshin if their plans to take over Japan are going to succeed. There's a lot of build-up to this duel: Kaoru and Yahiko discussing Kenshin, flashbacks to Seijuro's training of Kenshin, and even further back to scenes from the Revolution.
But after all this anticipation, the two main foes finally meet up and prepare for combat. Yumi walks over to Shishio's side and takes out a pocket watch, telling her love to take care of himself – all will be revealed in a future episode, but Shishio does comment that he'll only need 15 minutes to finish off Kenshin. As Shishio moves to attack, so does Kenshin. The climactic sequence of this story arc is underway and swords are crossed!!
Shishio uses a number of 'secret sword' techniques. With the first he sets his sword on fire (the burning arises from the human oils that have seeped into his blade over his many killings – niiiice). As with all these duels, we receive commentary from one character or other, explaining how each secret technique works, or what the combatants must be feeling. I'm not convinced that Shishio biting Kenshin is a particularly 'secret' attack, but it certainly does a lot of damage, toppling our hero for the disc and episode cliffhanger.
Picture & Sound
As we've come to expect from these discs, the picture and transfer are fairly clean with the odd bit of pixellation or colour bleeding. On the whole, though, hues are clear and vivid and blacks are a good solid shade. There's really no serious issue with the quality of transfer here.
For the first time in memory there actually is a slight problem in the audio department, with a couple of dropouts in the Japanese track noticeable during some of the dialogue in the first and third episodes. Other than that, the sound is pretty good if fairly central. Dialogue is mostly clear (barring dropouts mentioned) and the background music continues to impress me. Again I watched this disc with both Japanese and English tracks and again the Japanese wins out for me – but more marginally now that Kamatari isn't talking as much. There's no real horrors in the English dub here; I just prefer the Japanese one.
Menus, Extras & Packaging
A quick comment regarding the cover art... it's quite a dynamic shot of Kenshin in the foreground with the two faces of Soujiro (as a youngster and as he is now) flanking him on either side. It's a good way of highlighting the significance of the Soujiro duel to these episodes, and definitely sets the scene well. I found the main menu a little pallid compared with those on previous discs, but luckily this didn't cross over into the picture quality of the actual episodes and is restricted to the main menu only.
Extras are back to the usual set of trailers, outtakes and liner notes. The trailers included this time are for Jewel BEM Hunter Line, Berserk, Mezzo Forte and Puppet Princess. There are again around 30 scenes of outtakes – again more flubs than comedy, though we get a hint that the English voice actor for Shishio has a certain comedic flair which will become more obvious in the extras of the next volume. There are four pages of linguistic liner notes which continue to be the jewel in the special features crown for Rurouni Kenshin; I still heartily recommend reading them in detail.
Let's face it, if you've been watching Rurouni Kenshin up to this point there's no way you're not going to enjoy this disc, and there's certainly not much chance that this will be the final disc you watch of the series. The mix of fighting and characterisation remains one of the series' strongpoints for me personally and it's very much borne out by the storyline over these episodes. The cliffhanger is truly tense and honestly does mean that watching the next volume is inevitable for anyone enjoying the show so far.